Those who watched the recent debate between Vice Mayor John Knox White and Alameda Citizens Task Force steering committee member Paul Foreman on Measure Z, the ballot measure to repeal Article XXVI of the City Charter, were treated to a classic performance by Mr. Knox White.
From time to time, the Vice Mayor took the high road, urging Alamedans who “care about” racial equity and social justice to vote for Measure Z. He also spoke up for “the people who live here and the people who right now can’t afford to live here in a massive real-estate problem and housing problem that is getting worse.”
More often, however, Mr. Knox White stuck to the territory with which he’s most comfortable: distorting facts, disparaging opponents, and disseminating pronunciamentos. And he did it all with his typical air of smug self-righteousness.
We doubt that anyone on the fence about Measure Z was persuaded by Mr. Knox White’s presentation. But those who already agreed with him surely had their views resoundingly reaffirmed. Indeed, if one turned on the “Chat” function in Zoom, one saw nothing but praise for Mr. Knox White and pans for Mr. Foreman. And the voting members of the City of Alameda Democratic Club, which sponsored the debate, ended up endorsing the ballot measure by a tally of 48-to-9.
Donald Trump, it would appear, is not the only politician whose base will cheer his every utterance, however unfounded or unbounded it may be.
We’ll start with the fact-checking. What’s especially interesting to us here – because it’s indicative of his approach to public discourse – is how Mr. Knox White responded when Mr. Foreman called him out on his misstatements.
During the 40 minutes of the debate, Mr. Knox White got a few even simple facts wrong.
For example, he declared that, at a “very strong and very well-attended” Planning Board meeting (held in January 2020), “six out of the seven members voted for full repeal [of Article XXVI] based on the public input and the public discussion.”
It never happened. In fact, the Board took no vote on the issue at all that night.
When Mr. Foreman called him on his error, Mr. Knox White replied, “I’m not going to argue about what happened at the Planning Board. That’s getting into details that are really not all that important.”
In other cases, Mr. Knox White cherry-picked the data to support the conclusion he wanted.
For example, he claimed that, “We have real-world experiences, beyond just theory, that show that when we build denser and in more transit-oriented areas like Alameda Landing we can decrease the amount of driving by 30 percent.”
One might have thought Mr. Knox White was referring to reduced automobile use by the residents who live in the new development. As it happens, the five-year report for the West Alameda Transit Management Association did report a 30 percent reduction in peak-hour trips – but it was for trips taken to and from work by commercial/retail employees, who still drove alone 62 percent of the time, not by Alameda Landing residents. (The “executive summary” in the report, it should be noted in the Vice Mayor’s defense, erroneously reversed the residential and commercial/retail goals set by the TDM plan.)
Finally, and most outrageously, Mr. Knox White asserted that, “State law says that Article XXVI is illegal.”
There is no state statute that prohibits a city from zoning its residential sites for single-family use or that requires it to zone every residential site for multi-family housing. If there were, Article XXVI(1) would be illegal. But there isn’t, and it’s not.
Similarly, there is no state statute that prohibits a city from limiting density to one unit per 2,000-square feet or that requires it to permit a greater density everywhere in the city. If there were, Article XXVI(3) would be illegal. But there isn’t, and it’s not. Instead, only if a city’s existing land inventory isn’t sufficient to meet the low-income housing quota set by its Regional Housing Needs Assessment does state law require it to re-zone property to a higher density.
When Mr. Foreman challenged Mr. Knox White on this legal issue, the Vice Mayor replied that, “Paul gets into the details of language and ignores the fact that his statements were incorrect in the beginning.” (Whatever that meant.) Then he changed the subject.
Despite the plain error of his position, Mr. Knox White (who fancies himself an expert on the law as well as in a host of other areas) and his fans undoubtedly will continue repeating it. Nevertheless, it bears noting that Andrew Thomas, the City’s Planning, Building and Transportation director and as adamant an opponent of the Article XXVI as there can be, didn’t contend in his scathing December 2019 “evaluation” of the Charter provision that it is illegal. Instead, Mr. Thomas got the law exactly right: “To the extent that Article XXVI includes provisions that are inconsistent with State Law, those provisions are preempted.” Mr. Knox White may have missed the relevant law school class, but we didn’t: Preemption is just not synonymous with illegality.
For much of the evening, Mr. Knox White, as is his wont, was in attack mode.
Typically, he accused Mr. Foreman and his allies of being ignorant of basic facts, such as the RHNA requirement. (Which Mr. Foreman actually recited, using the correct numbers, more than once.) He also appears to have discovered a new word, “disingenuous,” which he ladled out generously, if not always aptly.
And he lobbed other unfounded charges as well.
For example, he accused Mr. Foreman of “drumming up nightmare scenarios that no one in City Hall is talking about and reading things out of context without any discussion and suggesting really terrible things.” In fact, the “scenario” described by Mr. Foreman to which Mr. Knox White referred came directly from the recently released draft General Plan update, which proposed, among other things, exempting certain properties built before 1942 from the current rules against demolition and removing multi-family prohibitions and density limitations in “transit-oriented areas.” If this was a “nightmare scenario,” it was one dreamed up by Mr. Thomas and his consultants who drafted the update, not one drummed up by Mr. Foreman and his allies.
Similarly, Mr. Knox White accused Mr. Foreman of proposing, if Measure Z didn’t pass, to “jam as many homes as humanly possible onto” land at Harbor Bay Landing, Marina Village, and South Shore. In fact, Mr. Foreman has never made any such proposal. It is the City’s Mr. Thomas who has talked publicly – and to the Merry-Go-Round – about the South Shore shopping center as a potential site for new housing to meet the expected higher RHNA quotas – if Measure Z does pass. So once again Mr. Foreman is made to take the fall for an idea emanating from City staff.
Finally, no Knox White performance could be complete without ad hominem attacks.
Despite having declared that, unlike others, he was above impugning the motives of Alamedans who voted for Measure A (which became Article XXVI) in 1973, Mr. Knox White insisted that the Measure Z opponents are motivated by their desire to see Alameda become a “wealthy enclave.” To that end, he suggested, Mr. Foreman and his allies are pursuing a policy of exclusion. “This is about anti-housing,” the Vice Mayor maintained. “This is about keeping people out of our community and not allowing people who live in our community to be able to afford to stay here.” In every story told by Mr. Knox White, there’s got to be a villain.
On the substance, Mr. Knox White displayed his customary predilection for making sweeping assertions and dispensing with nuance.
The Vice Mayor began the debate by declaring what he apparently considered unarguable truths. “At the end of the day, what we need to do is look at the facts,” he said. “[W]e know for a fact that housing is more expensive because of Article XXVI. We know for a fact that it generates more traffic. We know for a fact that it is less environmentally sound.”
Oh, do we now?
Take traffic. There are indeed studies that say that single-family homes generate more vehicle trips per unit than apartment buildings. Thus, a Charter provision like Article XXVI permitting only single-family homes (and duplexes) must be responsible for the traffic congestion that plagues Alameda, right? To Mr. Knox White, it’s that simple.
But it’s not. The traffic impact of any particular residential project is a function not only of trips per unit but also of the number of units in the project. Suppose a developer could build a dozen single-family homes on a given parcel under Article XXVI, or 40 apartments on the same parcel if Article XXVI is repealed. Would the former really generate more traffic than the latter? We don’t “know for a fact,” but we wouldn’t think so.
(The same fallacy applies to an argument based on GHG emissions per unit. An Article XXVI-compliant project may emit more or less carbon dioxide than a multi-family project on the same-size lot; it depends on the number of units in each.)
The categorical denunciations didn’t stop there. “Article XXVI,” Mr. Knox White declared, “is one of the most egregious examples in the Bay Area of the type of housing laws that have been put in place that cause this type of displacement.” Likewise, “Nobody can look at what’s happened over the last 47 years and make a case that there has not been some disparate impact.”
Mr. Knox White’s approach to the displacement issue is, again, narrow and simplistic: Why do current renters leave the city? Because housing is too expensive. And why is housing too expensive? Because Article XXVI permits only single-family homes. Q.E.D.
Well, we’ve read enough stories to know that “displacement” is not unique to Alameda (if indeed it is taking place here; we haven’t seen the data). It is a Bay Area-wide phenomenon. But the “type of housing laws” of which Article XXVI is “one of the most egregious examples” isn’t usually cited as the sole, or even the primary, cause of the increased housing costs that are driving renters out of cities. Instead, the blame more often is laid on increased demand by highly paid tech-industry workers.
By the same token, Mr. Knox White’s assertion that “nobody can make a case” that Article XXVI hasn’t had a “disparate impact” obscures his own failure to make a case that it has.
Indeed, he didn’t even give it much of a try. We’ll take him at his word that San Leandro’s non-white population has increased more than Alameda’s since 1970. But we’re not quite sure what that proves about Article XXVI. San Leandro, we suppose, has no similar Charter provision, but neither does San Francisco, whose non-white population, according to Mr. Knox White, has been “decimated” over that period.
For our part, we’d be more inclined to blame rising income inequality – a demonstrable fact not unique to Alameda – rather than a provision in our City Charter for any racial disproportionality in the population mix. And if you want to say that rising income inequality is a consequence of “systemic racism,” go right ahead. Just don’t say it’s Article XXVI’s fault.
As we have previously written, however, the issue of what harm, if any, Article XXVI did in the past is less important than the issue of what benefit, if any, its repeal would produce for the future.
And here again Mr. Knox White spoke only to those prepared to take him at face value.
To a large extent, he simply flipped his arguments about harms caused by the Charter provision 180 degrees around. Article XXVI created “racial disparities”; repealing it will perforce eliminate them. Article XXVI increased traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions; repealing it will perforce reduce them. Cutting out the cancer, he seemed to say, will immediately restore the patient to health. Would that it were so easy.
In addition, Mr. Knox White made the argument we were expecting to hear: i.e., that repealing Article XXVI would increase the supply of affordable housing in Alameda. But he seemed to focus his attention on how repeal would enable developers to build housing in the Park and Webster Street business districts, thereby “supporting the many mom-and-pop and local businesses that we love. . . .” Maybe so, but the resulting addition to the affordable-housing stock wouldn’t seem to be that significant.
There is, however, a more straightforward case to be made: If Article XXVI is repealed, and a compliant Council rewrites the zoning ordinances to permit higher densities, a developer could build a bigger project than it can now. And since the City has an inclusionary housing ordinance requiring 15% of a for-profit residential development to be deed-restricted for very-low-, low-, and moderate-income housing, a bigger project produces more “affordable” units. Assuming the developer can find the land and the money, a landscape in which Article XXVI is no longer a constraint might indeed result in a lot more low-income housing.
Strangely, however, the Vice Mayor didn’t make this argument. Perhaps he shares Mr. Foreman’s dim view of large-scale apartment towers after all. Or maybe – we think it’s more likely – he doesn’t want to have his standing in certain “progressive” circles tarnished if he’s seen to be urging building more market-rate housing for rich people. (Calling David Campos.) Safer just to proclaim that repealing Article XXVI will produce a desirable result without going too deeply into how or why.
Our readers may notice that we’ve devoted this piece to Mr. Knox White and not touched on the performance by Mr. Foreman. There’s a reason: Mr. Knox White is an elected official and thus fair game for criticism; Mr. Foreman is not. And we have to admit that we’re biased: we can’t help but admire Mr. Foreman for having the guts to take on John Knox White at a meeting of the City of Alameda Democratic Club. It’s like agreeing to debate Trump at an N.R.A. convention.
As for the moderator, tenant advocate Eric Strimling, we commend him for his professionalism and even-handedness. Eric, get yourself appointed to the bench; we wouldn’t mind arguing a case in front of you.
Sources: The City of Alameda Democratic Club has posted the video of the Measure Z debate on its Facebook page. (N.B. The first part of the video is devoted to candidates for County offices).